branding

Does sales need marketing – does marketing need sales?

The Institute of Sales and Marketing Management has recently updated its identity and is now just the ‘ISM’ and it’s not clear which ‘M’ has been dropped. Hovering over the logo on their website shows the alt tag: ‘Institute of Sales and Marketing‘, while the copyright line on the foot of the same page states ‘Institute of Sales Management‘ – curious.

Throughout the rest of the site, the ISM acronym is used consistently. Though worryingly, this is also used by the ‘Institute of Supply Management’ and the ‘Incorporated Society of Musicians’ amongst others.

However, it’s not the nomenclature that is concerning. From the tone of the language and discourse it’s clear that we are now talking about pure sales skills and expertise. There is no mention of marketing. We must assume that this is a conscious policy decision and there has been a schism between sales and marketing in the eyes of the organisation.

This is intriguing – because a little while ago, I was at a CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) event where speakers were bemoaning the historic drifting apart of the two disciplines and suggesting both would benefit from bringing them back together.

As a marketer, I would like to see this re-engagement. I’m sure many of my fellow practitioners would benefit from the cross-fertilisation of ideas – and a straw poll of my sales friends suggests similar viewpoints.

Three great brand tools come together.

3 great ideasImportant disciplines combine in a powerful branding approach.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing that familiar techniques and technologies can be sparked by a catalyst arriving at the right moment. Not only does the time have to be technically right, but the intellectual and cultural environment needs to be open to the opportunities.

The three branding disciplines I’m thinking about are semiotics, grounded theory and big data.

Semiotics

Semiotics provides us with an approach based upon cultural and societal meanings and the signs and signifiers that point to them. Currently there is a movement to understand emotional significance rather than declarative knowledge about brands and how deeper meanings are embedded in the brand narrative.

A semiotic approach to branding and brand development needs an analytic understanding of the cultural environment that a brand and its consumers inhabit. We need to discern the history, myths, metaphors and symbols that shape the consumers’ world and behaviour.

The major challenge has been the difficulty in finding our way into the data. As much of the meaning is unconscious, traditional research using primary survey techniques is not effective. Asking for views and opinions is of little value as people won’t or can’t answer truthfully – this is not because they want to mislead, but they honestly can’t access those deeper meaning.

Grounded Theory

This is where grounded theory comes in. Grounded theory is a very different qualitative approach. Rather than beginning with a series of questions we are looking for answers to, we approach the data without a theory. It is an ethnographic approach collating all the data we can from the environment. This may include published information, commentary from the media surrounding the subject, observation of the environment and practices, visual images, perhaps video, film and advertising, historical data, songs – in fact the whole cultural tapestry.

What the practitioner is looking for are patterns – recurrences of structures across a wide range of data. There is no pre-conceived theory but we are looking for codes and meanings that are emergent from the data.

As you can imagine, sourcing and amassing the masses of data necessary and then applying meaningful analysis can be a daunting and very labour-intensive task. This was the case in the past, but now we have the final piece in the jigsaw – big data.

Big Data

It is now possible to access amazing volumes of data from a mass of sources – textual, visual and auditory. Equally importantly there are now the analytical tools to process and understand the data – to look for those illusive and emergent codes and recurrences. One of the significant advantages of ‘big-data’ is its cultural richness.

Bringing together these three threads provides us with an approach to branding which allows us access to deep emotional understanding. We can get to grips with the deep meanings that drive the human essence of markets.

Tesco and five kinds of brand damage.

Financial, sales-revenue and profit reversals usually correlate with brand damage, though not necessarily to a serious extent. The public is often sympathetic to market conditions and we have seen many retailers struggling through, without permanent brand damage.

Tesco_signHowever some forms of damage can be more serious and enduring, and recently we have seen poor Tesco stumble from one hole to another. Sales revenue damage was compounded by mishandling possibly questionable management activities.

It’s probably a good time to consider the five major categories of brand damage in the light of the benighted retailer’s problems.

1. Market environment damage

Sometimes no blame can be attached to the organisation for issues beyond its control. Particularly political and legislative changes can impact business and the brand and the company may be trapped in negative activity,

Cultural and technological issues can also have damaging impacts. However, it can be argued that a well-managed brand should be constantly monitoring the market environment to remain in touch and relevant.

2. Accidents, incidents and events

Traffic police often say ‘There are no accidents, only incidents’ – the inference being that all accidents are avoidable. Events can be seriously and often terminally damaging.

We can look at the brand damage following in the wake of BP’s catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, or Toyota’s string of recalls. These ‘events’ are rarely blameless and damage is inevitable – the distinguishing feature is how a brand faces up to such a catastrophe. Openness, acceptance and swift responses can do much to restore a brand’s reputation where denial, obfuscation and attempts to cover up will only compound the problem.

3. Neglect, complacency and hubris

This kind of brand damage often follows a period of undoubted success. It is where a brand sits back, assumes that it has arrived at its place in the sun and believes it has a right to its position. This often leads to the previous form of brand damage as complacency dulls the belief that ‘something might go wrong’.

In the Tesco example, for decades the business was hardworking and innovative – a pioneer of online shopping, exploiting multi-channel trading and pushing the boundaries of a food market retailer. Did it grow fat, lazy and complacent? It has been suggested that part of the malaise was not being sufficiently sensitive to economic and market changes, and lack of clarity in its brand positioning – leading to shrinking market share.

In such a case, there is often an emotional disconnection – a complacent brand, like a complacent person, stops reaching out and the important emotional bond with the audience is damaged.

4. Incompetence and mishandling

It goes without saying that incompetence in brand management will be penalised. Well-meaning fumbling may not be taken too seriously if the brand has sound core values, however.

Mishandling is often the product of misunderstanding what is important. We have already looked at damage due to events and incidents. These are typical areas where a strong hand on the tiller is required to handle the aftermath.

We have recently seen the tragic events surrounding the Virgin spacecraft test-flight – we also witnessed the exemplary way Richard Branson responded. A stark comparison with Tesco’s response to falling figures.

5. Malpractice, malfeasance and dishonesty

This type of serious brand damage is the result of the actions of individuals or groups within a business. It may be rogue elements or it may be with the approval and complicity of management. We have seen examples of corrupt individuals in the financial sector – here swift action from the board can go some way to mitigate the potential damage. In other cases is may be institutional malpractice – here brand damage can spread beyond individual organisations to whole sectors.

Sometimes this can strike at the very core values of a brand and the damage may be terminal. The example which springs to mind is that of Anderson Consulting and the Enron scandal. The implied brand value of probity was brought into question and the result was the demise of a brand.

We wait to see if this type of damage was involved in the Tesco episode. If so, we can expect a costly and crippling degree of brand pain. Perhaps for a grocery retailer corporate rectitude is not a core value, but we can be sure other brands will be queueing up to fill the moral void.

Do I know you? How brands use your expectations to open you up.

The Rolls RazorWhenever you encounter a familiar brand your expectations are triggered, based upon your past experience. Your subsequent encounter is not fresh and objective but is directed by your previous understanding. Two levels of processing are involved here – ‘bottom up’ processing, the product of this individual episode and the information the brand is communicating, and ‘top-down’ processing based upon your expectations and prior experience. This latter processing operates at an emotional level and is all the more powerful for that.

This top-down processing need  not be based upon direct experience – it can be hi-jacked by similar, if inaccurate memories.  Unscrupulous brand owners use such tactics as using similar sounding names, colour schemes or logos to those of famous brands – those this is merely passing off and rarely lasts beyond the first purchase. Then it is replaced by disappointment and anger.

However, a legitimate and useful tactics for new brands is often to adopt a brand name that ‘sounds right’ – something that triggers expectations at a deeper level and predisposes the acceptance of the ‘bottom-up’ experience.

National characteristics are quite often a start for this. Lagers may choose a Scandinavian sounding name for example. It is a short cut to priming our presumptions. Many mens’ toiletries brands string together a pair of upper-class English sounding names – ‘Mountjoy and French’ or ‘Fairfax and Jarvis’. Fashion brands take a quick shortcut by selecting an Italian, French or British name, depending upon their selected brand positioning.

The name sounds like something we know – something we can understand and our memory brings a whole host of assumptions. A teacher friend of mine had great problems choosing names for her children, because so many names brought a lot of emotional baggage from experiences with children she had taught at some time.

This is fairly basic stuff, and not particularly sophisticated, the important point is to understand what is happening in the mind of the customer. In whatever experiential situation we find ourselves the mind tries to make sense of it. We never truly come with a blank slate. Cognitive processing is powerfully directed by what we expect to experience as much as inputs from the situation.

Brand communication must understand and utilise these fast first impressions and emotions incorporated in them. By the time the declarative knowledge has been imparted, processed and absorbed, the internal emotional expectations are deeply impressed.

What Darwin can teach us about branding.

DarwinMention ‘Darwin’ and ‘Branding’ in the same sentence and people immediately jump to the conclusion we are talking about that (usually misunderstood) concept of ‘Survival of the fittest.’

The root of the Darwinian view of evolution was far more fundamental and can provide a valuable perspective when looking at brands and how they too evolve. It was a bottom-up rather than a top-down concept. Instead of lifeforms evolving according to some pre-conceived plan, Darwin proposed that their development was the result of small changes and mutations – some were successful and led to the prospering of the organism – others, which failed to improve outcomes were bred out by natural selection.

With brands we sometimes overestimate the importance of control and brand-management. A good deal of what makes brands special comes out of natural evolution – doing small things very well, keeping and building upon the successful and eliminating anything which does not contribute to the viability of the brand.

It is the tiny details that matter. Small product benefits, notable customer service actions, minute points where expectations are exceeded.

Changes do not happen in isolation, they are relative to the environment. We talk about organisms evolving and adapting to their environment – brands must do the same. Change is constant.

Many of the great brands we all admire existed long before the heavy hand of brand management was there to direct them – and they evolved and adapted as clever and able people in all parts of the organisation did their jobs very well, getting better in small ways all the time. We have also noted the dinosaurs who failed or were unable to adapt to the changing environment.

If there is a lesson to be learned it is that concentrating on the details of the small things that brand does – and doing them well – improving the basics is vital. Allow the brand to change as the needs of customers evolve and develop, and apply only a light touch to the steering of management.

Brands must have walls, windows and doors

Walls, Windows andLet’s think of a brand as a fine building with walls, windows and doors.  These are the essential and useful features of any building. Properly constructed and used a building is sound, welcoming and vibrant, but care must be taken in the use of those same features to ensure that it doesn’t become a fortress, or worse, a prison.

WALLS

A brand’s walls define what it is, its scope and boundaries. Walls people understand a brand in terms of what it does and what it doesn’t do. This clarity is as important for those working on the brand  as it is for the public outside. As well as separating the brand, walls also connect – they are the touch points where the public contact the brand.

The danger is that walls can become fortifications. The brand can feel too safe and secure behind them and avoid contact with the challenging world outside. The walls can grow too high and the brand can no longer see out and understand what is happening outside.

WINDOWS

Fortunately brands also have windows. Through the windows the public can see into the brand and understand it. These are the communications conduits – advertising, press and public relations, digital and social media windows. It’s through these windows that the brand can speak, shout, wave and smile.

Windows work both ways – not only should the world be able to look in on the brand, but the brand can observe, understand and take note of the world it inhabits. These are the windows of customer service, and research – where the brand watches and listens.

Brands can choose how big to make their windows and how many. Plenty of big windows shed a lot of light into the brand and not all brand stewards like this. When problems occur its all to easy to start drawing the curtains.

But windows are useful for communication – you can see, show and demonstrate, but there is always that pane of glass between the brand and the public. To genuinely engage we need doors.

DOORS

Doors are where people actively connect with the brand. They are the points where the public purchases products and services, where the become emotionally involved. These are the gateways where the brand comes forth and meets its people – but more importantly, where it allows the world in – not just to observe but to connect. Doorways are where we place our welcome mats.

All three elements are equally important for a sound and effective brand:

Walls define the purpose, borders and remit of the brand, showing both public and staff where the brand stands.

Windows are vital for communications – transparency is the key.

Doors are where the public and the brand meet – not where people are locked out.

Will the co-op’s problems lead to long term brand damage?

Co-op bank sign

Sadly, we have seen it all before, commercial blunders and personal… well, shall we say, misjudgments. Usually brands are stronger than people imagine and can come out of such mire with little more than a few bruises to the ego and a little embarrassment. The public understand that the brand is not embodied in an individual – in most cases.

tripodalcultureSometimes however, the damage can go much deeper. The danger is when the brand’s core values are threatened.

A brand’s culture is very much like any other culture, it is tripodal – at its heart are its core values and beliefs, around that are its actions, how it interacts with the world, and finally its products, the physical manifestations of the brand in terms of tangible artefacts and goods. Any one of these elements may be vulnerable to damage through the actions of individuals or groups. We have seen some spectacular examples over recent years. But usually the brand may survive so long as the core – the beliefs and values are not damaged.

The question for the poor old co-op bank is, are its values at risk?

I think it is a close call. One differentiator that separated the brand from other banks, and helped see it through the stormy waters of the banking crisis, was its ethical dimension. Although it may have been viewed as staid and perhaps parochial, it relied upon the heritage of the co-operative movement, distanced from the pure profit motive. It often took ethical stances in terms of investments structured its accounts and products accordingly. This a distinction which must have appealed to many customers whose values it reflected.

Are business ethics distinct from personal ethics? Does business probity stand separately from moral laxity in the bank’s officers?

I’m sure the brand has not suffered terminal damage, but it has been hit in a very sensitive spot, its valuable point of differentiation will take a good deal of reclamation.

Will Dr Martens sale unleash a brand giant?

Dr Martens LogoIt looks as though the Dr Martens brand is set for sale to Permira, the organisation behind the Hugo Boss brand amongst others. I’m sure this can only be good news.

Compared to other fashion brands Dr Martens has always seemed to lag behind in its ability to extend and exploit the brand capital. Yet I’ve always felt there was enormous potential for a brand that has much more emotional legacy than simply that of a fashion label. Though it has immediate linkage to the skinhead era for those who lived through it, it went far beyond and had the power to re-engage with decades of subsequent cultures – both youth and older buyers who had the brand deeply embedded.

In terms of footwear styling, the owners managed to cleverly maintain the fundamental styles while responding to changing fashion cycles.

Perhaps the rather tentative forays into brand extension may lie the historic strength in footwear. The brand owners, the Griggs family, have footwear in their DNA. Boot and shoemakers based in the ‘shoe-capital’ of Northampton, they followed the line of playing to their core competences – the cobblers stuck to their lasts.

Now with new owners without such a strong but narrow legacy, the potential of this sleeping brand-giant may be released.

Favourite Brands – Virgin

There are lots of reviews of top brands… rankings, awards and well-researched analysis. If you want some more scientific insight, where better to look than Superbrands.

However, I like to occasionally indulge myself in looking at my own favourite brands – in a non-scientific and wholly subjective manner. My justification for this is my belief in the power of the emotional dimension of branding. This is not as open to scientific analysis though its manifestations may be quantified.

virgin logoMy choice for this piece is Virgin. I begin my working life when Virgin was still a baby brand and watched it grow up. For me it is an ideal example of consistent, emotional brand values.

It is hard to put your finger on the spirit which runs throughout the brand and engages with the public. It has much of the zeitgeist of the 70’s – slightly hippy and irreverent, perhaps it strikes a chord with those who have grown up with the brand. It is difficult to believe the same emotional theme could run throughout a business story that began with record stores and diversified and transformed through air travel, railways, new media and telecoms, financial services and now… space travel?

A key dimension has almost certainly been people. It’s glib to use terms like ‘brand ambassadors’ and I’m not sure that it is useful. It suggests that staff have another, special role. In truth the people are just doing their jobs, but the way they go about them embodies the brand spirit.

Another factor is probably the structure. A lot of what Virgin does runs contrary to accepted business wisdom. When Richard Branson took the business back into private ownership it ensured it had the flexibility to do things its own way. As regular plc, with a board with shareholders to answer to, it’s possible that business would never have moved into such seemingly unconnected arenas. Had it stuck to the record business it might have gone the way of HMV.

That’s why I’m nominating Virgin as one of my top brands – it has done things it’s own way – and understands that the value of the brand transcends the standard business models. It has maintained the emotional core, consistently over half a century, still with the cockyness of a bright teenager.

Charities forget brand values in fundraising at their peril.

Charity - Andrew Carnegie.Most decisions we make about brands have deep emotional connections. In many cases they are signifiers for our own sense of identity. Our choices in clothes, food and drink, cars and transport touch us at subconscious levels to accord with our sense of self. They feel right for us as they relate to our personal values and experience.

The more directly emotional the category of the brand, the stronger the connection. There can be few more emotional connections than those we have with charities we choose to support. Our choices are based on direct tugs to our individual heart-strings. We respond to deep beliefs and reflect strongly held values.

In general, the charities’ core activities are strongly in line with their brand values. They are very visible manifestations and probably demonstrate the reasons why we chose to support them in the first place. Where there are concerns lie in their down-stream activities, particularly fundraising. This is where we are most likely to interact directly with the brand and where a mismatch of values can become apparent.

Bob Geldof’s, “Give us your ****** money”, was right on the brand message for Liveaid. It resonated with the values of the supporters. Clearly, there are many charities for which such an approach would be inappropriate.

There has been a good deal of critical press about such activities as ‘chugging’ or ‘charity mugging’ where hit squads target city centres. There are arguments for and against, and for big charities it can be argued that the end justifies the means. However, often aggressive fundraising can seem out of synch withe the values of serious charities. Fundraisers must take a hard look at the characters and values of the loyal supporters and match their efforts to the shared brand values.

Brand values must be consistent above all. Sometimes it seems as though there is a disconnect between a charity’s core brand, its purpose and actions in the field and the activities of the fundraising arm.